Last year, Mississippi’s Jackson Free Press unearthed a photograph of a young cheerleader, Cindy Hyde-Smith, one of a group of girls surrounding a “Rebel” mascot holding a Confederate battle flag. The photo came from a 1975 yearbook from Lawrence County Academy, the high school the U.S. senator—then engaged in a reelection campaign—once attended. Lawrence was founded as a segregation academy—one of thousands of private schools white Southerners in 11 states started after the Brown v. Board decision as a way of keeping their kids away from their black peers. Later, Hyde-Smith enrolled her own daughter at another school that was first founded as a “seg academy.”
Hyde-Smith, a Republican, won her runoff election and secured her seat despite this revelation (and despite other racist gaffes committed in the course of her campaign). The episode made journalist and Mississippi resident Ellen Ann Fentress, who graduated from Pillow Academy, a segregation academy near Greenwood, think about the many alumni of such schools who surrounded her. Fentress said in an interview that she heard author Kiese Laymon give a talk at a bookstore in Jackson after photos of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s racist 1984 yearbook page surfaced in early 2019. “Laymon said, ‘How come is it when there are these photos of white people in blackface, everybody says, ‘You know, that’s not me’?” she recalled. “He said, ‘You know what I want? I want to see a white person who was in one of these photos say, ‘Yes, this is me, and this is what I was thinking.’ ”
Fentress, who (like Hyde-Smith, before she was outed) hadn’t put her seg academy alumni status on her Facebook profile, decided to be a white person who would claim this past. “It was its own little form of privilege,” she said, “to pick and choose what you reveal about your past”—a privilege she decided to give up. That’s the idea behind her new website, Academy Stories, which launched late last month. Via the site, the journalist and her collaborators hope to collect stories from as many seg academy alumni who are willing to write about it. The site launched with seven.
The stories up so far represent segregation academies as chaotic, understaffed, and underplanned. The point, it’s clear, was not education but separation. Bridget Smith Pieschel, who went to the all-white Winston Academy in Louisville, Mississippi, starting in 1969, reported that at first, there was “no art; no foreign language; no science lab; no band; no chorus” at her school. But, as a child, she said, “I took everything at face value. I believed that my school was ‘better,’ more ‘refined,’ ‘safer.’ ” Alan Huffman, who went to one of the many Southern seg academies founded by the “respectable” white supremacist Citizens’ Councils, remembered that it had a “mix of brilliant and horrible teachers.” “Anyone, it seemed, could get a job teaching in one of its pre-fab classrooms,” he remembered, “including a woman who admonished us for acting up in class by saying, ‘Y’all should be grateful—if it weren’t for teachers like me, y’all would be going to school with n—–s.’ ”
“What’s probably the hardest,” Fentress said about the project, “is that this kind of truth-telling calls on you to say some honest things about decisions people that you loved made.” While Fentress’ parents are no longer alive to react to this project, a post by Steve Yarbrough, whose parents sent him to a Council school in Indianola, Mississippi, starting in his fourth grade year, shows how fraught this can be. Yarbrough remembered that his parents were hard-pressed to pay the tuition. “Every spring, when it came time to fill out the form declaring whether I would attend the following year,” Yarbrough writes, “my dad was a terror around the house, mad at both my mother and me, snarling about how we’d have to go without food just to keep me away from you know who.” Later in his life, after Yarbrough wrote a dark novel critical of his hometown and his school, his father “told me bitterly that he and my mother hadn’t finished paying off the loans [for his school] until shortly before my thirty-second birthday. ‘And for what?’ he said. ‘Just so’s you could make fun of every goddamn thing we believed in.’ ”
A project like this runs the risk, as Fentress acknowledges, of indulging white guilt through a form of “negative nostalgia.” Fentress hopes to avoid this by, in the future, including stories from people who lived in communities where academies formed but didn’t attend them, or who taught in public schools that were drained of funds and students by an academy’s opening nearby. Other public-history projects—a museum exhibit, a podcast, or a video project—might follow. “It has to lead somewhere,” Fentress said, “or what are we doing?”